Obama’s Failed Afghan Peace Strategy

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A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

2e8098f118f74f0d1c11096a1728d45a.landscapeSince toppling the Taliban regime in Afghanistan 14 years ago, the United States has been waging a non-stop battle against its foot soldiers. Locked in a war that has already cost nearly $1 trillion, the US has now shifted its focus to making peace with the enemy. It will not work.

Months after President Barack Obama declared that America’s “combat role” in Afghanistan was over, the US and its allies continue to carry out airstrikes on Taliban positions regularly, while American special operations forces continue to raid suspected insurgent hideouts. In fact, beyond an increased role for Afghan forces in the fighting, the situation in the country has changed little since “Operation Enduring Freedom” was renamed “Operation Resolute Support.”

Obama’s premature declaration will be remembered much like his predecessor George W. Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished” speech, which proclaimed the end of major combat operations in Iraq long before they actually ended. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of casualties in Iraq were yet to occur.

Nor is this the first time that Obama has jumped the gun. In October 2011, he announced that he was bringing “the long war in Iraq” to an end by withdrawing all US troops. Yet, last year, the US was back at war in Iraq, this time in an effort to rein in the Islamic State, with Obama relying on the same congressional authorization that Bush secured for military action there a decade before.

In Afghanistan, the Obama administration has already missed the 2014 deadline, set in 2011, for withdrawing US forces. And it has rescinded another self-imposed deadline, having scrapped its plan to halve the number of US troops still deployed in Afghanistan – currently around 10,000 – by the end of this year.

So America’s military intervention in Afghanistan is now open-ended – and the fighting is not subsiding. On the contrary, the recent escalation of Taliban attacks indicates that the approaching summer fighting season will be among the most intense since the war began.

The Taliban has already inflicted far more casualties among US and allied forces than Al Qaeda and the Islamic State combined. A total of 2,215 American troops have been killed in Afghanistan, and another 20,000 wounded, since 2001. The United Nations documented a record-breaking 10,548 conflict-related civilian casualties just last year.

Yet Obama has refused to designate the Taliban as a terrorist organization, leaving it off the list of terrorist networks mentioned, for example, in his recent joint statement with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Instead, his administration has sought to portray the Taliban as a moderate force that can be accommodated within Afghanistan’s political system.

Moreover, in 2013, Obama allowed the Taliban to establish what was essentially an embassy in exile in Doha, Qatar, complete with a flag and other diplomatic trappings. And, last year, the US released five top Taliban leaders – including Mohammad Fazl and Mullah Nori, who are suspected of carrying out massacres of Sunni Tajiks and Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan – from the Guantánamo Bay detention center.

In releasing the five, the Obama administration claimed that it was simply doing what was necessary to secure the return by the Taliban of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl (who has now been charged with desertion). But the real objective was clear: to lay the groundwork for direct talks with the Taliban. The move not only belied US claims that it does not negotiate with terrorists; it also failed to bring the Taliban militia to the negotiating table.

With these concessions, the US has revealed to the Taliban – and the world – its desperation to achieve a face-saving settlement that would enable it, at long last, to escape the Afghan quagmire. It is no wonder that the Taliban chief, Mullah Muhammad Omar, hailed the release of his five comrades as evidence that his militia is “closer to the harbor of victory.”

The Obama administration’s desperation is similarly apparent in the generous aid that it has provided to Pakistan, including an imminent arms deal worth almost $1 billion, in an effort to secure the country’s cooperation on counter-terrorism. Yet the Pakistani military continues to shelter the top leadership of the Taliban, which it regards as an invaluable asset for gaining “strategic depth” in Afghanistan against India.

America’s success or failure in Afghanistan now hinges on a single limited issue: whether it can prevent the Taliban from marching into Kabul. By highlighting its desperate search for an exit, the US has given the Taliban the upper hand, letting the militia’s leaders know that they can simply wait it out.

Delaying a further drawdown of US forces will be inadequate to convince the Taliban otherwise. With its top leadership ensconced in Pakistan and its field commanders in Afghanistan becoming increasingly autonomous, the Taliban no longer has a centralized command. And, fearing desertions to the Islamic State, it knows that giving Obama what he wants – a peace deal that enables him to declare victory before his term ends in January 2017 – would be its death knell.

America’s faltering Afghan strategy should serve as a cautionary tale of how not to make peace with an enemy. It is time for Obama to recognize that a political settlement with the Taliban is simply wishful thinking. Instead, he should focus on bolstering Afghanistan’s security forces and identifying ways to eliminate the Taliban militia’s sanctuaries in Pakistan. After all, terrorists are not in the business of making peace; America should not think otherwise.

Great powers surf to conquer

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, March 12, 2015

indian-ocean-bases-180c4Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-nation Indian Ocean tour attests to this region’s critical importance for Indian security, including preventing India’s encirclement by hostile powers. If China were to gain the upper hand in the Indian Ocean region, it will mark the end of India’s great-power ambitions. India thereafter will be seen as merely a sub-regional power whose clout does not extend across South Asia, with Pakistan challenging it in the west and China in the north and south.

India’s tactical and strategic disadvantages along its land frontiers are more than compensated by its immense geographic advantage in the Indian Ocean. Such is peninsular India’s vantage location in the Indian Ocean — the world’s premier energy and trade seaway — that the country is positioned dominantly astride vital sea lanes of communication (SLOCs), including China’s emergent Maritime Silk Road.

Despite India’s inherent maritime leverage, its land-frontier compulsions have instilled a landlocked mindset. With its attention fixated on the disputed land borders, India — far from exploiting its advantage on the maritime front — often has difficulty facing up to the fact that it is a major maritime country. Worse still, India diplomatically neglected the Indian Ocean region in the 25-year period from 1989 when it was governed by coalitions. Tellingly, Modi is the first prime minister to visit Seychelles in 34 years and Sri Lanka in 28 years.

India’s long neglect has become China’s strategic gain. China’s quiet manoeuvring in the Indian Ocean, where it is chipping away at India’s natural-geographic advantage through multibillion-dollar projects along the great trade arteries, draws strength from its more assertive push for dominance in the South and East China Seas.

The Indian Ocean promises to shape the wider geopolitics and balance of power in Asia and beyond. India, however, finds itself on the back foot in its own strategic backyard. According to Jawaharlal Nehru, “History has shown that whatever power controls the Indian Ocean has, in the first instance, India’s sea-borne trade at her mercy and, in the second, India’s very independence itself.” The irony is that this is the only ocean in the world named after a single country.

China has been assiduously pursuing a strategy to build a “string of pearls” across the Indian Ocean so as to gain strategic clout and naval access. By rebranding the “string of pearls” strategy as a “21st-century maritime silk road” project, China has now sought to disguise its real intentions. This signature initiative of President Xi Jinping merely recasts the “string of pearls” strategy in meretriciously benign terms. Stripped of its rhetoric, the Silk Road — just like the “string of pearls” — is designed to redraw Asia’s geopolitical map by making China the preeminent power.

The Silk Road indeed exemplifies China’s use of aid, investment and other leverage to pull littoral states closer to its orbit, including through the construction of seaports, railroads and highways. Such construction may provide a counterpoint to China’s military assertiveness. Yet it is integral to a strategy that fuses soft and hard tactics to bind countries to China’s economy and security and to convince them that it is in their interest to accept China as Asia’s alpha power.

How China blends its economic and military interests was illustrated last autumn by the separate docking of two Chinese submarines at the newly opened, Chinese-majority-owned container terminal at Colombo Harbour. China’s desire for permanent military presence in the Indian Ocean, where it has carried out three deployments, is being whetted by its control of Pakistan’s Gwadar port, located strategically at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz. China has operationally taken over the port it built at Gwadar to develop not its commercial value (which remains unpromising) but its potential as a key naval outpost.

Given the emerging challenge to India in its maritime backyard, Modi must develop a credible strategy to counter it. His charm-offensive tour of regional states with offers of new economic and defence tie-ups marks just a beginning. Modi did well to drop the Maldives from his itinerary, given the political mess there. But he could have delayed his Sri Lanka trip until after the forthcoming parliamentary elections there, especially given the fact that his visit comes barely a month after President Maithripala Sirisena’s India tour.

In keeping with his highly personalized imprint on diplomacy, Modi thus far has relied on bilateral summits to open new avenues for cooperation and collaboration. Diplomacy alone will not suffice. Sirisena, for example, makes his first official visits to Beijing and Islamabad soon after hosting Modi.

To prevent Chinese military encirclement, India needs to significantly accelerate naval modernization. It must build sufficient naval prowess to potentially interdict Chinese SLOCs in the Indian Ocean and hold the Chinese economy hostage if a Himalayan war were thrust upon it again. A major holdback of tanker traffic in wartime would be a crippling jolt to the Chinese economy, though it might not alter the war’s outcome.

Even as the Chinese military keeps Indian ground forces busy in peacetime by staging Himalayan border incursions and other flare-ups, the oil and liquefied gas flowing from the Gulf and Africa to China pass through the Indian Ocean unmolested and unimpeded. Over 80% of China’s oil imports pass through the Malacca Strait chokepoint. Boosting SLOC interdiction capability would allow the Indian Navy to dominate key maritime routes and help improve the Chinese military’s behaviour along the Himalayas.

The contest for major influence in the Indian Ocean is pivotal to the success of China’s strategy to fashion a Sino-centric Asia. This is a contest India cannot afford to lose.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2015.

A Silk Glove for China’s Iron Fist

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Iron fist

A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

For years, China has sought to encircle South Asia with a “string of pearls”: a network of ports connecting its eastern coast to the Middle East that would boost its strategic clout and maritime access. Not surprisingly, India and others have regarded this process with serious concern.

Now, however, China is attempting to disguise its strategy, claiming that it wants to create a twenty-first-century maritime Silk Road to improve trade and cultural exchange. But friendly rhetoric can scarcely allay concern in Asia and beyond that China’s strategic goal is to dominate the region.

That concern is well founded. Simply put, the Silk Road initiative is designed to make China the hub of a new order in Asia and the Indian Ocean region. Indeed, by working to establish its dominance along major trade arteries, while instigating territorial and maritime disputes with several neighbors, China is attempting to redraw Asia’s geopolitical map.

The strategic dimension of the maritime Silk Road is underscored by the fact that the People’s Liberation Army has led the debate on the subject. The PLA National Defense University’s Major General Ji Mingkui argues that the initiative can help China to craft a “new image” and “win influence,” especially as the US “pivot” to Asia “loses momentum.”

Yet PLA experts remain eager to disavow the Silk Road initiative’s link with the “string of pearls.” Instead, they compare it to the fifteenth-century expeditions of Zheng He, a Chinese eunuch admiral who led a fleet of treasure ships to Africa. According to Central Military Commission member Sun Sijing, Zheng used the ancient Silk Road without seizing “one inch of land” or seeking “maritime hegemony” (though history attests to his use of military force – for example, executing local rulers – to control maritime chokepoints).

In reality, little distinguishes the maritime Silk Road from the “string of pearls.” Though China is employing ostensibly peaceful tactics to advance the initiative, its primary goal is not mutually beneficial cooperation; it is strategic supremacy. Indeed, the Silk Road is integral to President Xi Jinping’s “China dream” ambitions, which entail restoring China’s past glory and status.

China, especially under Xi, has often used aid, investment, and other economic leverage to compel its neighbors to deepen their economic dependence on – and expand their security cooperation with – the People’s Republic. Xi’s use of a $40 billion Silk Road Fund and the new China-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to develop the maritime Silk Road reflects this approach.

Already, China is constructing ports, railroads, highways, and pipelines in the region’s littoral states, not only to facilitate mineral-resource imports and exports of Chinese manufactured goods, but also to advance its strategic military goals. For example, China concluded a multi-billion dollar deal with Pakistan to develop the port at Gwadar, owing to its strategic location at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, which more than offsets the port’s limited commercial potential.

Twice last autumn, Chinese attack submarines docked at Sri Lanka’s newly opened, $500 million container terminal at Colombo Harbor – built and majority-owned by Chinese state companies. China has now embarked on a $1.4-billion project to build a sprawling complex roughly the size of Monaco on reclaimed land in Colombo – a “port city” that will become a major stop on China’s nautical “road.”

Zhou Bo, an honorary fellow with the PLA Academy of Military Science, admits that China’s mega-projects “will fundamentally change the political and economic landscape of the Indian Ocean,” while presenting China as a “strong yet benign” power. This is important, because the new Asian order will be determined less by developments in East Asia, where Japan is determined to block China’s rise, than by events in the Indian Ocean, where China is chipping away at India’s longstanding dominance.

India is certainly suspicious of China’s behavior. But China is treading carefully enough that it can continue to advance its goals, without spooking its intended quarry. The American academic John Garver depicted it best using a Chinese fable: “A frog in a pot of lukewarm water feels quite comfortable and safe. He does not notice as the water temperature slowly rises until, at last, the frog dies and is thoroughly cooked.”

Seen in this light, it is not surprising that China has invited India to join the maritime Silk Road initiative. The aim is not only to help calm a suspicious neighbor, but also to slow the development of India’s strategic ties with the US and Japan.

China’s plans for the Silk Road combine economic, diplomatic, energy, and security objectives in an effort to create an expansive network of linked facilities to boost trade, aid strategic penetration, and permit an increasingly potent and active submarine force to play an expanded role. In the process, China aims to fashion an Asian order based not on a balance of power with the US, but on its own hegemony. Only a concert of democracies can block this strategy.

Reshaping India’s diplomacy

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY

January 18, 2015, The Japan Times

Building closer ties with important democracies has become the leitmotif of his foreign policy. For example, his much-photographed bear hug with Abe in Kyoto has come to symbolize the dawn of an alliance between the world’s largest democracy and Asia’s oldest (and richest) democracy. Likewise, Modi is enhancing defense and economic cooperation with Israel, with India ordering more Israeli arms in the past six months than in the previous three years.

When Modi won the election, his critics claimed the nationalist would pursue a doctrinaire approach in office. However, one trademark of Modi’s diplomacy is that it is shorn of ideology, with pragmatism being the hallmark.

Nothing better illustrates his pragmatism than the priority he has accorded to restoring momentum to India’s relationship with America.

There was concern in Washington that Modi might nurse a grudge against the United States and keep American officials at arm’s length. After all, the U.S. continued to deny Modi a visa over his alleged involvement in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in his home state of Gujarat even after he had been cleared of any wrongdoing by an inquiry appointed by India’s Supreme Court. Yet, when he won the election, Obama was quick to telephone him and invite him to the White House — an invitation Modi gladly accepted, given the critical importance of America to India.

Modi’s White House visit last September helped him to establish a personal rapport with Obama. Obama’s impending India visit represents both a thank you to Modi for rising above personal umbrage and an effort to lift the U.S.-India relationship to a higher level of engagement through the major new opportunities being opened up for American businesses by Modi’s commitment to pro-market economic policies and defense modernization.

The U.S. already conducts more military exercises with India than with any other country. And in recent years, it has quietly overtaken Russia as the largest arms supplier to India.

Another example of Modi’s pragmatism is his effort to befriend China. He has invited Chinese investment in his plan to modernize India’s infrastructure, especially railroads, power stations and industrial parks. China’s foreign direct investment in India, however, remains trifling, with Chinese companies preferring to import primary commodities from India while exporting an avalanche of finished products.

China represents Modi’s diplomatic gamble, as was highlighted when Xi’s visit to India four months ago coincided with Chinese military incursions into India’s Ladakh region and a Chinese submarine’s visit to Sri Lanka. The submarine visit underscored an emerging new threat to Indian security from the Indian Ocean, a region where China has been building ports and other infrastructure projects to extend its strategic clout and build naval presence.

Another regional adversary, Pakistan, poses a different set of challenges for Modi, given the Pakistani military’s use of terrorist proxies. More than six years after the horrific Mumbai terrorist attacks, Pakistan has yet to begin the trial of the seven Pakistani perpetrators in its custody. Adding insult to injury, Pakistani authorities recently helped United Nations-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed — the architect of the Mumbai attacks — to stage a large public rally in Lahore city, including by running special trains to ferry in participants.

Modi’s Pakistan policy blends a firm response to border provocations with friendly signals. For example, he invited his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, to his inauguration and asked Indian schools to honor the victims of the recent Peshawar attack in Pakistan with a two-minute silence.

At home, Modi has shaken up the diffident foreign-policy establishment with his proactive approach and readiness to break with conventional methods and shibboleths. By taking bold new tacks, Modi is charting a course to boost India’s strategic influence both in its neighborhood and the wider world.

Indeed, Modi has put his stamp on foreign policy faster than any predecessor, other than the country’s first post-independence prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Yet Modi appears to have no intent of enunciating a Modi doctrine in foreign policy. He wants his actions to define his policy trademarks.

His actions have already started speaking for themselves — from his moves to engineer stronger partnerships with Japan and Israel (countries critical to Indian interests but which also courted him even as the U.S. targeted him) to his mortars-for-bullet response to Pakistan’s ceasefire violations. His firm stand at the World Trade Organization on food stockpiling, central to India’s food security, demonstrated that he will stand up even to a powerful, rich nations’ cabal.

More significantly, Modi’s policy appears geared to move India from its long-held nonalignment to a contemporary, globalized practicality. This means from being nonaligned, India is likely to become multialigned, even as it tilts more toward the U.S. and other democracies in Asia and Europe. Yet, importantly, India will continue to chart its own independent course. For example, unlike Japan, it has refused to join American-led financial sanctions against Russia.

After a long era of ad hoc and reactive Indian diplomacy, the new clarity and vision Modi represents is widely seen as a welcome change for India.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield).

Pakistan’s New Leaf?

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Brahma Chellaney

A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

As U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton bluntly told Pakistan in 2011 that “you can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbors.” But her warning (“eventually those snakes are going to turn on” their keeper), like those of other American officials over the years, including presidents and CIA chiefs, went unheeded.

17pakistan-hp-slide-03-articleLarge-v2The snake-keeper’s deepening troubles were exemplified by the recent massacre of 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar by militants no longer under the control of Pakistan’s generals. Such horror is the direct result of the systematic manner in which the Pakistani military establishment has reared jihadist militants since the 1980s as an instrument of state policy against India and Afghanistan. By continuing to nurture terrorist proxies, the Pakistani military has enabled other militants to become entrenched in the country, making the culture of jihad pervasive.

The Peshawar massacre was not the first time that the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism became a terror victim. But the attack has underscored how the contradiction between battling one set of terror groups while shielding others for cross-border undertakings has hobbled the Pakistani state.

As a result, the question many are asking is whether, in the wake of the Peshawar killings, the Pakistani military, including its rogue Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, will be willing to break its ties with militant groups and dismantle the state-run terrorist infrastructure. Unfortunately, developments in recent months, including in the aftermath of the Peshawar attack, offer little hope.

On the contrary, with the military back in de facto control, the civilian government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is in no position to shape developments. And, despite the increasing blowback from state-aided militancy, the generals remain too wedded to sponsoring terrorist groups that are under United Nations sanctions – including Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) and the Haqqani network – to reverse course.

Reliance on jihadist terror has become part of the generals’ DNA. Who can forget their repeated denial that they knew the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden before he was killed by US naval commandos in a 2011 raid on his safe house in the Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad? Recently, in an apparent slip, a senior civilian official – Sharif’s national security adviser, Sartaj Aziz – said that Pakistan should do nothing to stop militants who do not intend to harm Pakistan.

The nexus among military officers, jihadists, and hardline nationalists has created a nuclear-armed “Terroristan” that will most likely continue to threaten regional and global security. State-reared terror groups and their splinter cells, some now operating autonomously, have morphed into a hydra. Indeed, as the country’s civilian political institutions corrode, its nuclear arsenal, ominously, is becoming increasingly unsafe.

Pakistan is already a quasi-failed state. Its anti-India identity is no longer sufficient to stem its mounting contradictions, which are most apparent in the two incarnations of the Taliban: the Afghan Taliban, which is the Pakistani military’s surrogate, and the Pakistani Taliban – formally known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – which is the military’s nemesis. Pakistan also provides sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban’s chief, Mullah Mohammad Omar (and also harbors a well-known international fugitive, the Indian organized crime boss Dawood Ibrahim).

Meanwhile, Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the ISI’s largest surrogate terror organization, LeT, remains the generals’ darling, leading a public life that mocks America’s $10 million bounty on his head and the UN’s inclusion of him on a terrorist list. Earlier this month, Pakistani authorities aided a large public rally by Saeed in Lahore, including by running special trains to ferry in participants, so that the architect of the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack (among many others) could project himself as some sort of messiah of the Pakistani people.

Yet none of that stopped Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, Raheel Sharif, and ISI Director-General Rizwan Akhter from rushing to Kabul after the Peshawar attack to demand that President Ashraf Ghani and the U.S.-led military coalition extradite TTP chief Mullah Fazlullah or allow Pakistani forces to go in after him. In other words, they seek the help of Afghanistan and the U.S. to fight the Pakistani Taliban while unflinchingly aiding the Afghan Taliban, which has been killing Afghan and NATO troops.

Such is the generals’ Janus-faced approach to terrorism that six years after the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan has yet to try the seven Pakistani perpetrators in its custody. Indeed, under the cover of indignation over the Peshawar attack, the leading suspect in the case – UN-designated terrorist Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, who served as LeT’s operations chief – secured bail. International outrage soon forced Pakistan to place him in preventive detention for up to three months.

Those who believe that the Peshawar massacre might serve as a wakeup call to the Pakistani military should ask why the generals have ignored hundreds of earlier wakeup calls. Despite the blowback imperiling Pakistan’s future, the generals show no sign that they have tired of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.

The international community should stop placing its hope in some abrupt change of heart on the generals’ part. Creating a moderate Pakistan at peace with itself can only be a long-term project, because it hinges on empowering a feeble civil society and, ultimately, reining in the military’s role in politics. As long as the military, intelligence, and nuclear establishments remain unaccountable to the civilian government, Pakistan, the region, and the world will continue to be at risk from the jihadist snake pit that the country has become.

© Project Syndicate, 2014.

From a nonaligned to multialigned India?

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Brahma Chellaney, Nikkie Asian Review

When a country hosts Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama in rapid succession for bilateral meetings, it demonstrates its ability to forge partnerships with rival powers and broker cooperative international approaches in a changing world. This is exactly what India is doing under Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a display of diplomatic footwork that recently prompted the Russian ambassador to India, Alexander Kadakin, to publicly remark: “India is a rich fiancee with many bridegrooms.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of their meeting in New Delhi on Dec. 11. Modi will receive U.S. President Barack Obama in January. © Reuters

At a time when a new U.S.-Russia Cold War appears to be brewing, Modi — just after hosting Putin — will receive Obama in January, marking the first time an American president will have the honor of being the chief guest at India’s Jan. 26 Republic Day parade. The charismatic Modi, who won Time magazine’s recent reader poll for “Person of the Year” with his rock star-like following, has also sought to strengthen bilateral partnerships with other key players, including Japan, Australia and Israel. For example, his much-photographed bear hug with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has come to symbolize the dawn of an alliance between the world’s largest democracy and Asia’s oldest (and richest) democracy.

Since sweeping to power in May in India’s biggest election victory in a generation, Modi has shaken up the country’s reactive and diffident foreign-policy establishment with his proactive approach and readiness to break with conventional methods and shibboleths. The Modi foreign policy appears geared to move India from its long-held nonalignment to a contemporary, globalized practicality.

In essence, this means that India — a founding leader of the nonaligned movement — is likely to become multialigned. Building close partnerships with major powers to pursue a variety of interests in diverse settings will not only enable India to advance its core priorities but will also help to preserve strategic autonomy, in keeping with its longstanding preference for policy independence.

In the last quarter century, the world witnessed the most profound technological, economic and geopolitical changes in the most compressed timeframe in modern history. But much of India’s last 25 years was characterized by political weakness and drift, resulting in erosion of its regional and extra-regional clout. For example, the gap in power and stature between China and India widened significantly in this period. A 2013 essay in the journal Foreign Affairs, entitled “India’s Feeble Foreign Policy,” focused on how India is resisting its own rise, as if political drift had turned the country into its own worst enemy.

Against this background, Modi — widely known for his decisiveness — has made revitalizing the country’s economic and military security his main priority. So far he has made more impact in diplomacy than in domestic policy, a realm where he must prove he can help transform India. Nevertheless, Modi’s focus on the grand chessboard of geopolitics to underpin national interests suggests a strategic bent of mind.

Modi indeed has surprised many by investing considerable political capital in high-powered diplomacy so early in his term, even though he came to office with little foreign-policy experience. He has succeeded in putting his stamp on foreign policy faster than any predecessor, other than the country’s first post-independence prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Foreign policy pragmatist

Modi’s actions thus far suggest a clear intent to recoup India’s regional losses and to boost its global standing. One trademark of Modi’s foreign policy is that it is shorn of ideology, with pragmatism being the hallmark. In fact, India’s new leader has demonstrated a knack to employ levelheaded ideas in both domestic and foreign policies to lay out a nondoctrinaire vision and to win public support. For example, he has launched a “Make in India” mission to turn the country into an export-driven powerhouse like China and Japan and to transform it from being the world’s largest importer of weapons to becoming an important arms exporter. Modi’s clarity and vision, coming after a long era of ad hoc, reactive Indian diplomacy, is seen as a welcome change for India.

To be sure, the Modi foreign policy faces major regional challenges, exemplified by an arc of failing, revanchist or scofflaw states around India. India’s neighborhood is so chronically troubled that the country faces serious threats from virtually all directions. This tyranny of geography demands that India evolve more dynamic and innovative approaches to diplomacy and national defense. India must actively involve itself regionally to help influence developments, which is what Modi is attempting to do.

A broader and more fundamental challenge for him is to carefully balance closer cooperation with major players in a way that advances India’s economic and security interests, without New Delhi being forced to choose one power over another. One balancing act, for example, is to restore momentum to a flagging relationship with Moscow while boosting ties with the U.S., which has quietly overtaken Russia as the largest arms supplier to India.

Even though Modi told Putin during a summit of BRICS countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — in Brazil in July that “every person, every child” in India knows Russia is the country’s “biggest friend,” the reality is that the India-Russia camaraderie of the Cold War era has been replaced by India-U.S. bonhomie. Modi must stem the new risks as Russia moves closer to India’s strategic rivals — selling top-of-the-line weapon systems to China and signing a military-cooperation agreement with Pakistan in November.

Despite the challenges confronting Modi, India seems set to become multialigned, while tilting more toward the U.S. and other democracies in Europe and Asia. Yet, importantly, India will also continue to chart its own independent course. For example, it has rebuffed U.S. pressure to join American-led financial sanctions against Russia and instead has publicly emphasized “the need to defuse Cold War-like tensions that are increasingly manifesting themselves in global relations.” A multialigned India pursuing omnidirectional cooperation for mutual benefit with key players will be better positioned to expand its strategic influence and promote peace and cooperation in international relations.

Because of its geographical location, India is the natural bridge between the West and the East, and between Europe and Asia. Through forward thinking and a dynamic foreign policy, India can truly play the role of a facilitator and soother between the East and the West, including serving as a link between the competing demands of the developed and developing worlds. At a time of heightened geopolitical tensions, the world needs such a bridge-builder.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author of “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” the winner of the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Award.

Tibet core to Sino-Indian ties

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEYThe Japan Times

Despite booming two-way trade, strategic discord and rivalry between China and India is sharpening. At the core of their divide is Tibet, an issue that fuels territorial disputes, border tensions and water feuds.

The Tibetan plateau is Asia’s “water tower.” © Brahma Chellaney, “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013).

The Tibetan plateau is Asia’s “water tower.”          © Brahma Chellaney, Water: Asia’s New Battleground (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013).

Beijing says Tibet is a core issue for China. In truth, Tibet is the core issue in Beijing’s relations with countries like India, Nepal and Bhutan that traditionally did not have a common border with China. These countries became China’s neighbors after it annexed Tibet, a sprawling, high-altitude plateau where, after waves of genocide since the 1950s, ecocide now looms large.

Take China’s relations with India: Beijing itself highlights Tibet as the core issue with that country by laying claim to large chunks of Indian land on the basis of purported Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links, rather than any professed Han Chinese connection. Indeed, since 2006, Beijing has a new name — “South Tibet” — for the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is three times the size of Taiwan and twice as large as Switzerland.

Tibet historically was the buffer that separated the Chinese and Indian civilizations. Ever since Communist China, in one of its first acts, gobbled up that buffer with India, Tibet has remained the core matter with India.

In the latest reminder of this reality, President Xi Jinping brought Chinese military incursions across the Indo-Tibetan border on his India visit in September. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government responded to the border provocations by permitting Tibetan exiles to stage protests during Xi’s New Delhi stay.

In response to China’s increasing belligerence — reflected in a rising number of Chinese border incursions and Beijing’s new assertiveness on the two Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir — India since 2010 has stopped making any reference to Tibet being part of China in a joint statement with China. It has also linked any endorsement of “one China” to a reciprocal Chinese commitment to a “one India.”

Yet the Chinese side managed to bring in Tibet via the back door in the Modi-Xi joint statement, which recorded India’s appreciation of the help extended by the “local government of Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China” to Indian pilgrims visiting Tibet’s Kailash-Mansarover, a mountain-and-lake duo sacred to four faiths: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Tibet’s indigenous religion, Bon. Several major rivers, including the Indus and the Brahmaputra, originate around this holy place.

Actually, a succession of Indian prime ministers has blundered on Tibet. Jawaharlal Nehru in 1954 ceded India’s British-inherited extraterritorial rights in Tibet and implicitly accepted the plateau’s annexation by China without any quid pro quo. Under the terms of the 1954 accord, India withdrew its “military escorts” from Tibet and handed over to China the postal, telegraph and telephone services it operated there.

But in 2003, Atal Bihari Vajpayee went further than any predecessor and formally surrendered India’s Tibet card. In a statement he signed with the Chinese premier, Vajpayee used the legal term “recognize” to accept what China deceptively calls the Tibet Autonomous Region as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.”

Vajpayee’s blunder opened the way for China to claim Arunachal Pradesh as “South Tibet,” a term it coined to legitimize its attempt at rolling annexation. In fact, since 2010, Beijing has also questioned India’s sovereignty over the state of Jammu and Kashmir, one-fifth of which is under Chinese occupation and another one-third under Pakistani control.

During Xi’s visit, it was by agreeing to open a circuitous alternative route for pilgrims via the Himalayan Indian state of Sikkim that Beijing extracted the appreciation from India to China’s Tibet government. Given that the sacred Kailash-Mansarovar site is located toward the western side of the Tibet-India border, the new route entails a long, arduous detour — pilgrims must first cross eastern Himalayas and then head toward western Himalayas through a frigid, high-altitude terrain.

One obvious reason China chose the roundabout route via Sikkim is that the only section of the Indo-Tibetan border it does not dispute is the Sikkim-Tibet frontier. Beijing recognizes the 1890 Anglo-Sikkim Convention, which demarcated the 206-km Sikkim-Tibet frontier, yet it paradoxically rejects as a colonial relic Tibet’s 1914 McMahon Line with India, though not with Myanmar.

The more important reason is that China is seeking to advance its strategic interests in the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction, which overlooks the narrow neck of land that connects India’s northeast with the rest of the country. Should the “chicken’s neck” ever be blocked, the northeast would be cut off from the Indian mainland. In the event of a war, China could seek to do just that.

Two developments underscore China’s strategic designs. Beijing is offering Bhutan a territorial settlement in which it would cede most of its other claims in return for being given the strategic area that directly overlooks India’s chokepoint. At the same time, Beijing is working to insidiously build influence in Sikkim, including by shaping a Sino-friendly Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism.

This sect controls important Indian monasteries along the Tibetan border and is headed by the China-anointed but now India-based Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley. The Indian government has barred Ogyen Trinley — who raised suspicion in 1999 by escaping from Tibet with astonishing ease — from visiting the sect’s headquarters in Sikkim. Indian police in 2011 seized large sums of Chinese currency from his office.

India, however, has permitted the Mandarin-speaking Ogyen Trinley to receive envoys sent by Beijing. In recent years, he has met Han Buddhist figures as well as Xiao Wunan, the effective head of the Asia-Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation. This dubious foundation, created to project China’s soft power, has unveiled plans with questionable motives to invest $3 billion at Lord Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal — Lumbini, located just 22 km from the open border with India.

Since coming up to power six months ago, Modi has pursued a nimble foreign policy. One key challenge he faces is how to build leverage against China, which largely sets the bilateral agenda, yet savors a galloping, $36-plus billion trade surplus with India.

Moreover, past Indian blunders on Tibet have helped narrow the focus of Himalayan disputes to what China claims. The spotlight now is on China’s Tibet-linked claim to Arunachal, rather than on Tibet’s status itself.

To correct that, Modi must find ways to add elasticity and nuance to India’s Tibet stance.

One way for India to gradually reclaim its leverage over the Tibet issue is to start emphasizing that its acceptance of China’s claim over Tibet hinged on a grant of genuine autonomy to that region. But instead of granting autonomy, China has make Tibet autonomous in name only, bringing the region under its tight political control and unleashing increasing repression.

India must not shy away from urging China to begin a process of reconciliation and healing in Tibet in its own interest and in the interest of stable Sino-Indian relations. China’s dam-building frenzy is another reminder that Tibet is at the heart of the India-China divide.

That a settlement of the Tibet issue is imperative for regional stability and for improved Sino-Indian relations should become India’s consistent diplomatic refrain. India must also call on Beijing to help build harmonious bilateral relations by renouncing its claims to Indian-administered territories.

Through such calls, and by using expressions like the “Indo-Tibetan border” and by identifying the plateau to the north of its Himalayas as Tibet (not China) in its official maps, India can subtly reopen Tibet as an outstanding issue, without having to formally renounce any of its previously stated positions.

Tibet ceased to be a political buffer when China occupied it in 1950-51. But Tibet can still turn into a political bridge between China and India. For that to happen, China must start a process of political reconciliation in Tibet, repudiate claims to Indian territories on the basis of their alleged Tibetan links, and turn water into a source of cooperation, not conflict.

Brahma Chellaney, a regular contributor to The Japan Times, is the author of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield).

© The Japan Times, 2014.